University doctor warns of dangerous synthetic drugs

Poison expert Christopher Holstege speaks against drugs containing psychoactive stimulants

A University doctor and poison expert is speaking out against the dangers of bath salts and other synthetic drugs. Bath salts — a street name for drugs containing mephedrone and other psychoactive stimulants — affects users in ways similar to amphetamines and cocaine.

It first appeared in Europe in 2009 and became prominent in the U.S. in late 2010.

In early 2011 nearly 600 people each month were calling U.S. poison control centers after taking the drug, said Christopher Holstege, an associate professor in the department of emergency medicine and the director of the Blue Ridge Poison Control Center.

The drug’s preparation by “illegal street chemists” makes it difficult to pin down the substance’s chemical makeup, said Zane Horowitz, medical director of the Oregon Poison Center at the Oregon Health & Science University. “Nobody really knows [the chemical makeup], because there is no way to test for these substances,” Horowitz said.

Synthetic drug manufacturers aim to stay a step ahead of federal drug laws. When bath salts first came to the United States, they were new and completely legal.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration last October reclassified mephedrone, a compound found in bath salts, as a Schedule I substance, citing the drug’s high potential for abuse.

Data suggests the use of bath salts is declining after its criminalization, but Holstege said the next concern is “what new synthetics will replace [bath salts]”

Many still use designer drugs such as bath salts to get a high because they are not detectable using drug screenings. “It’s going to be very hard to make sure people aren’t abusing these [substances],” Holstege said.

“Marked agitation” is a prominent symptom of bath salts use, Holstege said. Users are known to fight police and become delusional, he added.

Users are also likely to experience serious health effects. Adverse effects to the liver, kidneys, heart and brain are all common. Because the drug is often acquired through the Internet and imported , it is difficult for the government to track.

“To society as a whole, there’s a tremendous danger here,” Holstege said.

University Police Officer Angela Tabler, the unit’s community service and crime prevention coordinator, said she has not run into any cases of people using bath salts in Charlottesville or Albemarle County.

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